PRINT May 1977

On George Segal’s Reliefs

NOT SINCE PARADISE HAVE HUMAN beings been able to approach each other sexually without abashment or its concomitant, masking. Eroticism depends on delight taken in concealment alternating with exposure. Similarly, art that is sexual is likely to depend upon the mingling of ambiguity with explicitness.

That George Segal has accomplished this in his erotic reliefs may paradoxically be due to the deadening literalism of his better-known work in the round. These plaster relief fragments of lovers and women dispense with the affectation that characterizes the tableaux, works whose blatant verisimilitude has always looked awkward to me. Of course, Segal’s tableau mannequins are not really “accurate” renderings of people, but I think they seem all the more so precisely because the spaces and rooms in which they appear are very accurately “lifelike.” One is tempted to conduct life normally in a Segal room, to sit down among the figures and converse with a friend, to drop a coin in the bus driver’s cash register, although to do these things would mean forgetting that one is trespassing beyond the invisible but absolute boundary that separates art from life. All art, certainly, invites us to suspend disbelief and forget that, but Segal’s allows us to forget it before we even recognize that it exists. We may treat his deliberately constructed set as casually and inattentively as we might regard the decor in a coffee shop. In this way, Segal’s scenes always flirt with self-effacement, or even self-annihilation.

I suspect that Segal recognizes this danger and so compensates for the literal space of his tableaux by stylizing his figures in an absurdly grotesque and obvious manner. What more certain way can there be of making the sets inhospitable than by populating them with mummies? Segal’s space is quite real, his figures are life-size and painstakingly detailed, so he makes the mannequins hopelessly unreal at the same time, to counter their primary literalism, sapping color and softness from their prototype humans. They then merely represent the most expedient means of transforming a person into a figment. The tableaux reveal their impossibility as art as quickly as they assert their impossibility as life: facing the usual Segal work, one sees above all an extreme and awkward straddle between obvious fact and obvious fantasy.

Nevertheless, Segal’s failures in the tableaux are quite possibly the source of his success in the reliefs. The balance of blatancy and allusiveness which sexual art requires both puts Segal’s tendency to be explicit to work and also forces him to demur. The hands and fragments of breasts, legs and vulvas which make up his reliefs are every bit as detailed as the faces and bodies of his tableau figures; without this detail they could not be candidly erotic, but would very likely relax into a kind of vaguely sexual sentimentality. Yet where a crude combination of actual size and vacant surface withholds from the mannequins the power to suspend disbelief, the relief figures emerge out of and recede into mute, coarse backgrounds of blank plaster. In their play between the explicit and the vague, the body-fragments fluctuate as consciousness itself does during sex. Where they emerge, they evoke that clarity of perception that ascends, then disappears, when, making love, one relapses into pure and silent pleasure. Where they recede, they suggest the fading of sexual memory itself, so that the whole collection of reliefs seems a display of pungent, remembered moments surrounded on all sides by an immaterial ethos.

Frequently enough, one hears applied to Segal’s tableaux that modern cliché “alienation.” In other words, the tableaux are seen to represent their characters’ profound discomfort with their milieux. That the mannequins should be thought to find desolate their movie theaters and subway cars is not surprising; blanched, sullen and rigid, the figures are hardly about to smile, weep, sing or carouse. Ideas of alienation may indeed count in Segal’s purpose, but an aura of discomfort and bleakness is also the inevitable outcome of the formal constraints the tableaux themselves impose. Distorted as they must be, to give esthetic credence to the sets, the mannequins cannot avoid appearing incongruous with genuine Coke machines and “Don’t Walk” signals. All too suavely they tempt us to find in them some more sweeping statement—about, say, how Americans in general feel about the mass-produced detritus of which we have made paradise.

At any rate, such incongruity, not to say alienation, is entirely antithetical to the intimacy and affection that the reliefs exude. Of course, the reliefs deal in more essentially intimate moments than do most of the tableaux, but before anything else they are set apart from the mannequins by the stiff, actual size of these larger figures. The great figurative sculptors of tradition recognized, it seems to me, the necessity of imparting an illusion of motion—or at least the ability to move—to their statues, lest they betray artifice at first glimpse. Segal makes his interest in “alienation” over into a penchant for morose postures and dour expressions. Though the mannequins are in a sense portraits—they aim at specific characterization—Segal seeks out in all his models a nearly identically disconsolate slouch.

Segal is striving for intimate gestures that in degree and kind recall, for instance, the hand on the thigh in Rodin’s Kiss. The nuance was possible for Rodin in a full-round sculpture of two bodies because he was not unwilling to exaggerate and idealize them, but it may be available to Segal only in fragments. Unless isolated, such nuance must be supported by dramatic contexts that Segal rejects de facto by choosing to cast his figures from real bodies. Segal produces reliefs and tableau-figures by such means—wrapping and casting—but the reliefs may be much better suited to the technique. The trivial, perfunctory, intimate nuances of posture that his method renders are perfectly supported by the relief medium, concerned as it is with the essentially fragmentary observation of seeing as glancing.

Thus the gesture isolated in Lovers’ Hands is at once passionate and substantial, ethereal and momentary. A male hand stretches down across a woman’s stomach, pressing on steadfastly toward her vagina. One of the woman’s hands deliberately and vigorously guides the man’s fingers; her other rests delicately on his wrist, already relaxed to limpness by the pervasive pleasure of his touch. The woman’s first hand (the guiding one) is purely and powerfully affirmative, is affirmation and desire in the abstract, even though we are crucially aware of how outsized the male hand is, how incongruous with regard to her smaller body, and how intrusive.

This whole event is abbreviated both in space and time. We know of no before or after for these hands, though they are quite obviously in motion; and we see nothing of the lovers’ bodies beyond their wrists and a hint of the woman’s legs. I doubt that there would be much point seeing more, for the object of the relief seems not to give us an anatomy lesson. Neither is it pornographic. Rather, it describes the passionate moment itself, which will very shortly give way to a new and thoroughly different moment. And it strives to dwell on the content of that moment—the exquisitely clear and uniquely sexual consciousness of what is happening in a precise part of one’s body at an exact point in time, an awareness which will soon enough proceed to some other part of the body and a different pleasure. Simply, intelligently, and with sophistication, Segal’s reliefs render the swings from physical to mental, from submersion to awareness, and from past to present, that occur in sex. They make no attempt to be discreet or modest: there is no equivalent for sex, an utterly singular phenomenon, but sex itself. They do not sentimentalize lovemaking; the margins of blank plaster surrounding the body-fragments are slim, just wide enough to convey the fading of the moment and thus, indirectly, to assert that sentimentalizing sex amounts to very little in the end. There are only these voluptuous instants. They are present, and then they are gone.

Segal’s reliefs treat of memory in a larger, generalizing fashion as well. Their body-fragments are not truncated cleanly, but jaggedly, like certain sculptural fragments that survive from antiquity. Yet the explicit parts of Segal’s reliefs cannot be anything but contemporary, for several reasons: especially their candidness itself, and the nearly photographic precision with which the fragments are rendered. And, above all, the sexual acts Segal shows are preliminary and trivial. In none of the reliefs do we see actual lovemaking; each gesture is a minor one, a hand lightly brushing or touching a vagina, legs spread apart in anticipation, a part of a body turned or offered sexually. These are gestures tangent to consummation, though they are no less charged than it. If the explicit parts are contemporary, however, the vague parts consciously mimic the classical, and mimic it as seen through modern eyes for, of course, antique fragments were not originally executed with broken noses and amputated limbs.

By making antique reference, Segal’s friezes classicize sex—they make it mythical and perennial. They make of it an ethos, in the exact sense of the word—something which is not transitory. Is there no contradiction, then, between the ephemerality of the individual moments in these pieces and the classicizing, monumentalizing action of their contexts? Not really; the gestures remain transitory even as they are made to seem ancient. Their contexts serve to extend their history back in time—saying, in a sense, that these moments could have occurred at any time, anywhere. They are mythical in the sense of basic, and monumental in the sense that they are of enduring and absolute importance. These reliefs humanize sex in a remarkable way: by fusing it with history. And there is a joyous, celebrative outcome to all this play with paradox: the passing of each of the moments, mock-historicized as it is, predicts or even assures an abundance of such moments in the future. Their very transience provokes desire.

I do not want to scrutinize the issue of how these reliefs may also be seen as parodic and self-mocking. Suffice to say that the sexual gestures’ historicizing frames can also be read to negate sex, or the idea of sexual passion. Since the gestures are minor and personal, framing them with connotations of the grand and classic could have made them ridiculous. The intimate and insignificant have a hard time living up to such clothing as they are here forced to wear. This would be so, at any rate, if the gestures were not shown in such terrifically lewd and seductive detail. As they are, the works beguile us to forget their own insignificance, just as, when we are engaged in it, we are quite far from thinking of the ultimate triviality of sex itself.

A real novelty in Segal’s recent show was his having added color to both mannequins and relief-figures. As we might expect, he makes no attempt to be subtle here—most of his characters are evenly saturated with bright red, blue or green or heavy black. The addition of color to the tableaux pushes them gently toward surreality, which suggests that Segal is less concerned now than he was before with making his characters look unhappy than with making them absolutely strange. In a roundabout way, he has taken the basic incongruity of the mannequin-with-a-set-situation and pushed it to its limit. Unfortunately, the tableaux now look as awkward as, and even more affected than, before, even though their inhabitants are by comparison somewhat less baleful. The formal constraints of the tableaux are so extreme that color can only be a belated way of injecting life into the lifeless.

When used in the reliefs, however, Segal’s bright color works to overwhelming effect. Bright blues and oranges subsume and add to all the themes of the reliefs irony and sentiment. They suggest at once the tendency of memory to distort—to change the emotional coloration of an event—and the vivid, feverish sensuality of the sexual moment, which the colors glorify. And they flirt sardonically with such overly sweet, overly “blue” versions of sex as pornography gives us, as if to imply that the absolutely lewd is pleasurably, humanly sexual too.

Leo Rubinfien